Of course, one victory does not mean that the spring classics are going to be a one-man hit parade from here to Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
It certainly does send a very strong message.
The giant-sized giant-killer slayed the peloton’s biggest names in nothing short of Merckxian style. From Tour de France winners to classics superstars, no one could come close to matching van der Poel’s supreme power over the gravel roads of Tuscany.
Everyone knows Van der Poel is a one-man wrecking crew. Nothing against his Alpecin-Fenix teammates, but van der Poel is so strong and so race savvy that teammates are reduced to bit players when it’s crunch time. If Julian Alaphilippe can barely hold on to his wheel, no one can blame his teammates if there are no friendly jerseys there to help him in the final hour of racing.
The level is so high in today’s peloton, it’s fairly rare to see any team have more than one of its key helpers alongside its captains. On Saturday, Ineos Grenadiers punched above its weight, with Tom Pidcock and a tenacious Egan Bernal in the select front group.
In the upcoming classics — with the possible exception of Deceuninck-Quick-Step or Trek-Segafredo on a good day — expect mano-a-mano skirmishes from Harelbeke all the way to Liège. And in every one of those scenarios, van den Poel’s singular strength will tower above his rivals. Wout van Aert is the only true opponent who can stand toe-to-toe to van der Poel on equal footing, with Alaphilippe right there on favorable terrain.
Strade Bianche is a unique race in that it attracts and is well-suited for a very wide range of rider specialties. In fact, it’s probably the only one-day race on the calendar when the likes of Tadej Pogačar and Romain Bardet square off against brawlers like Wout van Aert and Greg Van Avermaet.
Van der Poel revealed he can beat them all.
What’s coming next is a series of one-day races where van der Poel will be first in line for victory.
Will he win every race? Of course not. Not even Eddy Merckx won every time he started a race. But much like Merckx, van der Poel has the growing magnetism and raw strength to dictate the tactics in every race he starts.
Look what happened last week. He was so strong he broke his handlebar at Le Samyn. Check the data below shared by Alpecin-Fenix about his power output — stunning.
— Alpecin-Fenix Cycling Team (@AlpecinFenix) March 8, 2021
How far can van der Poel go this spring?
On paper, he could possibly win every race he starts. But just like what happened with Annemiek van Vleuten in last year’s restarted calendar, when she ripped through a string of dominant victories, one injury, illness, or tactical mishap, and everything goes back to zero.
Just consider his calendar over the next few weeks:
E3 Saxo Bank Classic
Dwars door Vlaanderen
Ronde van Vlaanderen
He’s already said he’s not going to be racing to win the GC at Tirreno, but might try his luck in a few stages. Harelbeke and Dwars are just filling around the main courses at Sanremo, Flanders and Roubaix. Could he win all three on a trot? Not even Merckx at the peak of his powers — remember, he won Sanremo seven times — could pull off that streak.
Could he someday win all five monuments? Only three riders in cycling history — Merckx, Rik van Looy and Roger De Vlaeminck — have won all five. Of the active riders, Philippe Gilbert, who’s missing San Remo, has come closest.
So far, van der Poel has won only one of the monuments, at last year’s Flanders in a sprint finish with van Aert. After racing last year’s Il Lombardia, van der Poel is downplaying his chances for the monument sweep.
“Honestly, I haven’t thought about that for a second,” van der Poel said Saturday. “Especially because after last year, I realized that the Giro di Lombardia course is too hard for me. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is also on the limit, but maybe I could win there if all the pieces of the puzzle come together. But to answer the question, that is not an ambition. I have also won only one monument.”
So what can we expect in the coming weeks? Perhaps the most exciting classics seasons in several years. And if Peter Sagan is back at his best following a bout with COVID-19, the elite men’s peloton could see epic races in just about every outing this spring.